Your Most Important Decision


          Tell me, what is it you plan to do
          With your one wild and precious life?

          The Summer Day by Mary Oliver

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Photograph – [WOMAN SITTING IN STORE] – James Jowers (American b. 1938) Date: 1969

Accession Number: 2007:0275:0043

George Eastman House Collection

An Answer to Evil


Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty.  To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom. Bertrand Russell

Dear Anders Behring Breivik,

A lot of the friends I met at Utoya are dead and you are the perpetrator. You are the man who, by coincidence, didn’t kill me. I was lucky.

You might think that you have won. You might think that you have ruined something for the Labour Party and for people around the world who stand for a multicultural society by killing my friends and fellow party members.

Know that you have failed.

You haven’t only made the world stand together, you have set our souls on fire and should know we’ve never stood together as we do now. You talk about yourself as a hero, a knight. You are no hero. But you have created heroes. On Utoya that warm day in July, you created some of the greatest heroes the world has seen, you unified people from all over the world. Black and white, man and woman, red and blue, Christians and Muslims.

You made your victims martyrs, immortals, and you have shown the world that when one person can show as much hatred as you have done, imagine how much love we can show when we stand together? People who I thought hated me have given me hugs on the street, people I haven’t been in contact with for years have written 300 to 400 words about how much it means to them that I survived. What can you say about that? Have you broken anything? You have united us.

You have killed my friends, but you haven’t killed our cause, our opinions, our right to express ourselves. Muslim women got hugs of sympathy from random Norwegian women on the street and your goal was to protect Europe from Islam? Your actions worked against its purpose.

You deserve no thanks; your plan failed. A lot of people are angry, you are the most hated person in Norway. I am not angry. I do not fear you. You can’t touch us, we are greater than you. We do not answer evil with evil, as you wanted it. We fight evil with good. And we win.

Benjamin Ostebo, aged 16.

Courage


Courage is not the opposite of fear – it is the defiance of fear. Looking fear in the eye, we gird up our loins and act anyway.

However, to be courageous doesn’t mean to be reckless.

Recklessness is thoughtless.

Courage is thoughtful.

When we are reckless we don’t recognise – or acknowledge – the dangers, therefore it requires no courage to act recklessly.

Courage is what’s needed when you know what you stand to lose and act anyway.  We admire courage in others and, if we want to feel good about ourselves, acting courageously will generally help with that.

It’s easy to say we should have courage – we’d all like to think of ourselves as courageous – but if it was that easy to have we’d all be brave all the time.

Still, we can but try…

Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.  John Wayne

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Why We All Need Science and Religion to Work Together (even if we think we don’t)


Objective knowledge provides us with powerful instruments for the achievements of certain ends, but the ultimate goal itself and the longing to reach it must come from another source. Albert Einstein (1)

Everyone would agree that we are material beings but we also know that much of our experience of life is not material.  We love, hate, imagine, dream, think, guess, wish, hypothesize – and there is no one way to explain it all. Along with our material reality we have another reality – a transcendent reality. Which is why we need as many paths to knowledge as we can get.

Because, as Albert Einstein also famously said –

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind. (2)

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Photograph – A glowing emerald nebula seen by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope.

(1) This article appears in Einstein’s Ideas and Opinions, pp.41 – 49. It is taken from an address at Princeton Theological Seminary, May 19, 1939. It was published in Out of My Later Years, New York: Philosophical Library, 1950.

(2) Albert Einstein“Science, Philosophy and Religion: a Symposium”, 1941

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The Importance of Difference.


Contrast

Image by Jonas Hansel via Flickr

The differences between us are natural and bring a beautiful diversity to human life – like a garden full of varied plants and flowers.  But perhaps there is a lot more to the story of difference than simple decoration.

In physical terms, in order to see anything clearly with our eyes we need it to contrast with its background.  Animals understand this phenomenon as they blend into the background to avoid predators. And, if you or I want to display a dark picture we will most likely mount it on a light background.  We do this because the contrast between the picture and the background allows everyone to see the features of the picture in greater detail.  Contrast literally draws our attention to what we wish to focus on and allows us to see it more clearly.  Perhaps there is an analogy to be drawn here in terms of human behaviour?

Sometimes, as we search for solutions to difficult questions we find that everything can be a big mush of detail.  To solve the problem we usually need to tease out the individual elements in order to come up with answers.  This can be hard to do because these ‘individual elements’ can be difficult to see.  We may not enjoy ourselves much when we are engaged in a problem-solving process with others who see things differently to us but perhaps the differences between us in the process may be the very contrast-providing mechanisms we need to see the detail clearly?

So maybe it is possible that just as physical diversity lends itself to greater health in a population (whether flowers or animals or people) then diversity of viewpoint and thought and culture and experience are just as necessary for healthy human society.

Thinking About Thinking


Most of us pride ourselves on being rational beings who think before we act. Indeed even the word think suggests consciousness – but are we really as rational as we believe ourselves to be?

Two recent books that deal with how our unconscious thinking and instincts influence our decisions are Blink by Malcolm Gladwell and Risk by Dan Gardner.

Both authors contend that our decision making is based on a combination of conscious and unconscious thought processes.  Gardner calls these two modes Head and Gut.

…Gut is unconscious thought and its defining quality is speed. Gut doesn’t need an encyclopaedia to figure out what to do when something moves in the long grass…Head is like a bright but lazy teenager capable of great things if he would just get out of bed. (1)

Both Gladwell and Gardner agree that our unconscious decisions appear to us as if we are using our conscious mind and not our gut. Ironically enough, decisions like these feel particularly definite and reliable.  And while sometimes indeed these feelings-which-present-as-thoughts are reliable, in order to make really good decisions we need to use all of our capacities.

Psychologist Daniel Goleman, also recognises this twin-engined thought process and like Gladwell and Gardner, attributes this unconscious thought process more to our ancient survival tool-kit rather than our sophisticated modern needs. (2)

The first step then in learning to think for ourselves is realising that our thinking is multi-layered and includes information from both our conscious and unconscious processes.  To quote Daniel Goleman again,

Intuition works best when a gut sense can be built on other data. (3)

The important thing about our unconscious decision and thought processes is not whether they are right or wrong but that we recognise them and try to use our conscious decision making faculty to harness and best use whatever Gut brings to the party.

TomorrowThe Stories We Tell Ourselves

(1) Dan Gardner, Risk – The Politics and Science of Fear. Virgin Books, 2009, p. 32

(2) Daniel Goleman, The New Leaders, Little Brown and Company, 2002, p. 28

(3) ibid, p.43

Talking to Your Hat


Cover of "Man Who Mistook His Wife for a ...

Cover via Amazon

In the title-story of the book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hatneurologist Oliver Sachs describes Dr. P – a man who suffered from a degenerative problem in the right hemisphere of his brain.

Dr. P. was a talented musician and teacher and in many ways appeared not only normal, but, in fact, quite accomplished and capable.  He himself didn’t believe there was anything the matter with him, sadly, however, this was not the case.

As a result of his neurological deterioration, Dr. P. sometimes failed to be able to tell the difference between people and other objects such as hat-stands or fire-hydrants – famously mistaking his wife’s head for his hat.  However, even more catastrophic for Dr. P., was that he also lost his capacity to make ordinary judgements and this was the part of his condition that most severely impacted on everyday life.  As Oliver Sacks puts it,

He could not make a cognitive judgement, though he was prolific in the production of cognitive hypotheses. A judgement is intuitive, personal, comprehensive and concrete – we ‘see’ how things stand in relation to one another and oneself…our mental processes, which constitute our being and life, are not just abstract and mechanical, but personal as well – and, as such, involve not just classifying and categorizing but continued judging and feeling also… (1)

Making judgements is not the same as being judgmental.  Should I put mango in the curry?  Does this dress make me look fat?  Is it safe to cross the road?  Will I marry Tom?  We all make small, medium and large judgements all the time and so, if we want to live mindfully and not just ricochet around reacting to thing outside ourselves, we need to look at how we make these judgements.

Tomorrow – Thinking About Thinking

1) The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sachs, Picador, 1986, pp20-2